Miriam Lord: Numbers game finally up for Dáil bingo
Canny time-hogging strategies by rural TDs a feature of grab-a-number speaker system
Dáil bingo’s number is up.
No longer will the urgent waft of laminated paper dominate the Order of Business.
No longer will the Rural Alliance be accused of number squatting.
No longer will the cry of the Healy-Rae echo across the leather landscape before anybody else.
The controversial bingo-card system has been abandoned. And the chamber is a quieter place for it.
It was the first day of the new, old system where the Ceann Comhairle calls on deputies to speak on a first come, first catch his eye basis. Business was always conducted this way until TDs began complaining that some politicians were getting noticed and called more times than others.
They are very sensitive about these things.
In the end, when the put-upon Ceann Comhairle couldn’t stand the whinging anymore, it was decided to bring in a fairer, more transparent system. Seán Ó’Fhearghaíl couldn’t be expected to have eyes in the back of his head.
So in came the bingo cards. TDs who wanted to ventilate a particular issue in the presence of the Taoiseach after Leaders’ Questions had to take a card and wait for their number to come up.
But it didn’t stop there. While the person in possession of a card was the one entitled to ask a question, other TDs could get speaking time if addressing the same subject. So if, for example, a deputy were to ask a question relating to Kerry and another deputy (who might be sitting beside him) had an interest in the same topic, he too could stand and give it extra welly.
Almost as soon as this system was put in place, members of the Rural Alliance became adept at the numbers game, consistently bagging the lowest numbers and best speaking slots.
As a result, questions on the Order of Business became somewhat niche, while providing an excellent platform for the Healy-Raes and colleagues.
It couldn’t go on. Numerous Business Committee meetings were held. Two options were considered: revert to the old way which caused so much bickering, or decide the running order by drawing names from a tombola in the chamber while the Dáil is in session.
Unfortunately, in a missed opportunity, the tombola option was knocked on the head and a chance to inject some glamour and drama into the otherwise drab proceedings was lost.
So Tuesday saw the Ceann Comhairle return to the traditional method.
TDs were sent a notice to this effect.
“Apart from leaders of groups in opposition, who will, if present in the chamber, be automatically selected, any member wishing to ask a question on promised legislation should indicate to the Ceann Comhairle by raising their hand to attract his attention. The Ceann Comhairle will take names from the start of Leaders’ Questions only, no earlier, and has asked me to say that he will not take names from written notes.”
It was very civilised. Not a howl from a Healy-Rae until the closing minutes of the session, when few were listening and Michael came in to complain about Kerry nurses not being appointed to available jobs in the county and forced to work in Dublin.
There was some minor waving at the Ceann Comhairle, but apart from that, nobody went overboard with attempts to attract Ó Fearghaíl’s attention. A variety of speakers from different parties contributed on a variety of issues.
In due course, naturally, there will be tantrums.
Meanwhile, the Government and body politic was in deep shock following the announcement that Seán Canney, Independent TD for Galway East, who left the Independent Alliance last week following a disagreement over the allocation of a junior ministerial post, was stepping down as Assistant Government Whip.
Leinster House became a seething hotbed of indifference after this bombshell broke.
On a sad note, warm tributes were paid to former Fine Gael TD, Monica Barnes, who died at the weekend. She was a mighty woman.
Mary Lou McDonald was anxious the Taoiseach wouldn’t take her up the wrong way when she said of Monica: “She didn’t really come across as a Fine Gaeler – at least not to me.”
The Sinn Féin leader stressed she meant this as a compliment.
Leo Varadkar thanked her for her kind words and didn’t disagree.
“Monica Barnes often did not come across as a typical Fine Gaeler, perhaps in the same way that Deputy McDonald doesn’t always come across as a typical Sinn Féiner.”
“Ooooh!” went the TDs.
Michael Healy-Rae was enchanted.
“Is this an olive branch? A courtship? It’s nice.”